Super-12 makes supercharged start in Australia

While professionalism is threatening to cause a schism in English club rugby, Down Under it has been used a launch-pad to increase the sport's popularity. Greg Growden reports from Sydney
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While the move to professionalism in England has proved a troubled road with more blind turns no doubt still to come, in Australia the end of the amateur era could hardly have gone more smoothly. Rugby league, with its stranglehold as the premier football code in New South Wales and Queensland, has always been Big Brother, but as union has made its bold bound into the business arena, league has ironically been pitched into disarray by a dispute over power and money.

Not quite. But there are encouraging signs that the long undernourished underling is seriously threatening rugby league.

The reason for the change is simple. The southern hemisphere administrators have in the Super-12 tournament devised a competition which has been an unqualified success, attracting record crowds, overwhelming media attention, plus the most marketable style of play - expression rather than inhibition. The tournament could also not have been better timed, coinciding with the Australian Rugby League's unconscious attempt to self-destruct, through its highly emotive and divisive battle with Rupert Murdoch's rebel Super League organisation.

During a period where many league supporters became sick and tired of a bewildering court-room battle, which revolved around greed and ego, the Super-12 was the ideal alternative.

While the New South Wales league premiership was placed in limbo for two weeks, the only rugby available was the Super-12. And the tournament rose to the occasion, with several outstanding matches involving NSW succeeding in convincing some fans to convert.

The early crowd figures proved that. When the league competition eventually started in late March, attendances were down 53.4 per cent, while representative rugby crowds had increased by 45 per cent. From only 3,217 spectators who watched Australian Capital Territory play NSW in Sydney in 1994, their next encounter, held last month at the Sydney Football Stadium, attracted 20,687.

This was before a crowd of 30,147 watched the NSW-Natal Super-12 match at the Sydney Football Stadium, the biggest crowd to watch the state side since Fiji attracted 38,000 against the Waratahs at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1952.

Away from Sydney, attendances have been as healthy. ACT reported their biggest-ever crowd in Canberra when the Brumbies played Auckland, while attendances at Ballymore for Queensland have always been above the 15,000 mark.

The playing standard has also proved irresistible, bringing Test excitement to the provincial level. This has partly been brought about by the successful introduction of law changes, including enforcing the back row to stay engaged until the ball has left the scrum-base, and a bonus competition point for any team which scores four or more tries in a match.

This has prompted every team to be adventurous and test their abilities, even when matches appear lost. It has also encouraged the most vibrant of back-line play, with several teams, Auckland, Natal, Northern Transvaal, NSW and Queensland, producing intricate and beautifully thought out moves, which would do any Barbarians line-up proud. Not having as many loose- forwards crowding the defensive line helps as well.

As important has been the competition point given to any team finishing within seven points of their opponents. So no one has an excuse to give up.

Those in the northern hemisphere should take the hint, because such innovations would help to enliven a Five Nations tournament, which is currently treated with total disdain in the southern hemisphere.

Sure, there has been the occasional headless chicken match during the Super-12, with all-out, frenetic attack outweighing flimsy defence. But the bulk of the games have stood out because of the excellent standard.

The Super-12 is not yet perfect. There are some problem areas, particularly the poor standard of refereeing, and the vast differences in interpretations from country to country.

The use of local referees has led to accusations of bias, with repeated complaints from coaches that their team "has been robbed" when away from home. The organisers are already considering introducing neutral referees for the second half of the Super-12, but this is too late for several disgruntled players, coaches and officials.

Another dilemma is the inevitability of the Super-12 turning into a court drama. There is overwhelming anger on the eastern seaboard of Australia that hardly any of the Super-12 matches are being shown on terrestrial television, instead being limited to the Murdoch-backed Foxtel pay-TV network, which only a small percentage of the population has access to.

Foxtel's main pay-TV opponent, Optus Vision, claim that they also have a contractual agreement to show the Super- 12. Consequently the Australian TV sports war has now crossed codes with Optus challenging New Corporation's $A780m (pounds 370m) 10-year deal with the southern hemisphere unions for the pay-TV rights.

Optus, partly funded by Kerry Packer, have filed proceedings in the NSW Supreme Court against the Australian Rugby Football Union, News Corporation and Foxtel, for alleged breach of contract. However, the legal action is not scheduled to start until after the Super-12 final on 25 May, prompting at least one tournament free of courtroom bickering, and the fine mess which has given the code such a fillip at the expense of rugby league.

Greg Growden writes for the Sydney Morning Herald